Joey and Tina, both 17, are in love, and their Eden is Springfield Mall. They met there late one night last August: He was playing Donkey Kong, she needed a light for her Marlboro. She saw that his cigarette was lit, reached right up and plucked it from his lips. Joey liked that. Two weeks later, in a dark alcove near Herman's Sporting Goods, they shared their first kiss.

Now, after five months, Joey and Tina, who attend different Fairfax County high schools and probably never would have met had it not been for the mall, have cut classes to be together--in the mall. Where it is always 74 degrees, summer, winter, spring and fall.

"We really think of the mall as our place," Tina said. The Mall. Fully enclosed. Eternally spring-like climate. The town center of an often-centerless suburbia, the shopping stop of choice to thousands of Northern Virginians who live within minutes of one of the world's great cities, yet rarely go there except to work.

Malls are big business--and not just in terms of money. There are 15.6 million square feet of shopping center space in Fairfax County, and 4.5 million square feet of it is consumed by Northern Virginia's four regional malls: Seven Corners Center, Tysons Corner Center, Springfield Mall and Fair Oaks.

Although no separate figures are available for those four malls, the county's Office of Research and Statistics reports that the 132 shopping centers and malls combined contribute $8.4 million a year in county real estate taxes. That's 3.3 percent of the total collected by one of the two or three wealthiest counties in the nation.

The International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that shopping centers and malls generated 42 percent of retail sales in America last year. Of about $2 billion in taxable sales in Fairfax County last year, officials estimate that about 10 percent of that was chalked up by the malls.

During one 16-hour marathon sale at the Hecht Co. at Tysons Corner last November alone, receipts totaled about $2.5 million, according to mall manager Altage Faust.

Like a railroad line, a river or a natural port in the days of transcontinental settlement, malls have become a magnet for development. Seven Corners was built in 1956 on farm land once owned by a former slave. Frederick Foote Sr. bought the land in the late 1800s with money he saved working on the C&O Canal, selling wood and serving as a guide for Union forces during the Civil War's first Battle of Bull Run.

Back then, Fairfax County's population was 98,000. Today, Seven Corners sits astride two major highways and is surrounded by seemingly endless apartments and subdivisions in a county with a population of 620,000.

Likewise, Tysons Corner was once a sleepy crossroads with a small general store, a beer joint and a filling station. In the summer, carnival shows were held in a pasture near Rte. 123 and Leesburg Pike, and farmers vied for a $50 prize offered for lasting three rounds of wrestling with a gorilla.

Today, Tysons and Springfield are car-congested hubs in their own right.

Fair Oaks, the newest mall, is awaiting its turn for the boom its developer, Taubman Co., hopes will follow, especially with the recent opening of I-66. Taubman, which has developed malls all over the country, intentionally builds malls in rapidly growing suburban areas a couple of years before there is enough business to support them, then waits for population growth to bring in the customers.

If malls can help lay foundations for new growth, they also can spur revitalization of business in stagnant communities. Winchester's new Apple Blossom Mall brought new shoppers into town, inspiring city fathers to revitalize its old downtown business district.

"The mall is kind of a coming of age for Winchester, I guess," said chamber of commerce spokesman Wade Ferguson.

But if malls can help old business in a town like Winchester, they also can lead to decay.

Caroline Street, once the bustling main street of Fredericksburg, has been transformed into a virtual ghost town with the opening several years ago of the regional Spotsylvania Mall. Washington's own downtown has faltered with the opening of Northern Virginia's malls.

Kenneth Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University, said shopping malls, by draining business from traditional downtown shopping areas, also reinforce the homogeneity of an area.

"In downtown shopping areas, there is a great range of rents, a great many different kinds of stores," Jackson said. "People of all types, from all over, come downtown and mix. But in a mall, the kinds of stores, the rents on the space, everything is controlled by one person or one group of people."

He said there is "a certain uniformity, an element of control. They know what kind of customer they want to serve, so they stick different types of the same shops together. There is one common goal, so it's like being in one big store."

Even in an area of affluent, highly educated residents, such as Northern Virginia, each of the regional malls has its own personality, which reflects the demographics of the district in which it is located.

Fairfax County statistics show that the McLean planning district, where Tysons is, has a median household income of $51,300 a year. Fairfax (home of Fair Oaks) is next, with $41,000, followed by Springfield, with $40,000 and Baileys Crossroads (Seven Corners), with $31,000.

The education levels in the planning districts are ranked in the same order, with the median level of education in the McLean district at 13.5 years at the high end while in Baileys the level is 12.9 years.

Accordingly, those familiar with marketing say, the merchandise varies somewhat from mall to mall. For example, although Woodward & Lothrop has stores in Tysons, Fair Oaks and Seven Corners, more high-fashion items are available in Tysons than in the others. The trend seems to hold for other anchor stores in the Northern Virginia regional malls, such as Garfinckel's, located in all four.

Tysons, in the McLean section, offers Bloomingdale's and Hecht's along with Woodies and Garfinckel's. Springfield, on the other hand, heavily populated with middle-level bureaucrats and military-related employes, offers as its anchors J.C. Penney's and Montgomery Ward. Also there, before its recent closing, was Korvettes.

Fair Oaks seems to cater to a wider band of shoppers. Besides Woodies, Garfinckel's, Hecht's and Lord & Taylor, there are branches of Penney's and Sears.

If merchandising is unique in each mall, the ambiance is as well. Tysons, lush and high-tech, has plush pit groups for seating, as does Fair Oaks. Seven Corners has a few hard benches, as does Springfield. The piped-in music tends toward french horns, strings and xylophones in Tysons and Fair Oaks, toward Tijuana brassy in Seven Corners and toward Mantovani strings in Springfield.

Tysons has names for its exits, such as Fashion Court and Fountain Court. Springfield calls its by number. At Seven Corners, the main entrance also doubles as a bus stop.

Even so, mall managers say, shoppers tend to go to the mall that is closest. Malls become familiar places, like the local grocery. Shoppers learn where in the maze the various stores are. Like the young lovers Joey and Tina, shoppers come to have a feeling for the mall they frequent.

Comfortable, convenient: the mall as home away from home.

"Some day," says Tina, squeezing Joey's waist, "we could bring our kids here and show them where we met."